Elvin Jones was not only one of the most original, innovative, and influential drummers the world has ever seen, he was also a musical genius far ahead of his time. In his early years he was often criticized for playing unconventionally, and to a great extent, his critics were correct — Elvin never played the obvious. But that, among so many other qualities, made him unlike any drummer that preceded him, and changed the direction of jazz drumming forever.

Jazz bassist Ron Carter might have put it best when he stated in the 1979 video documentary Different Drummer: “The only way to illustrate or accurately define Elvin’s contribution is to play a recording of a pre-Elvin Jones drummer, play a recording of Elvin Jones, and then play a recording of a post-Elvin Jones drummer. I think these three examples would best illustrate all of Elvin’s contributions to the drums better than words could ever say.”

So is it even possible to describe Elvin’s style in words? As Carter suggested — it’s not easy. Elvin didn’t just play the drums in his own unique way, he heard the drums differently as well. Whenever Elvin sat down at his kit he played with authority, conviction, and pure raw emotion. His drumming was extremely natural and free flowing, bursting with spontaneity and endless creativity.

Much of Elvin’s playing can be compared to the “sheets of sound” that jazz critic Ira Gilter used to describe John Coltrane’s solo on “Giant Steps.” In other words, Elvin’s complex, ever-changing style could at times be compared to a wall of sound, which seemed as if two or three drummers were playing at once.

His phrases often avoided the standardized musical constraints of downbeats and barlines. His groove was relentless, and ride cymbal phrasing was unprecedented. He possessed a keen melodic instinct, an uncanny ability to create and shape musical colors and textures, an individual touch and sound, and endless energy. Most drummers can only dream of playing the rhythmic juxtapositions and superimpositions that came so easily to Elvin, who — rightly or wrongly — was often described as the most polyrhythmic drummer in jazz history.

“Play The Music.” During our private sessions together and in drum clinics, Elvin would emphasize that the drum set should be used to “play the music.” His point was that drummers should always have a musical reason for the drum parts they play, rather than resorting to a series of random licks that don’t relate to the musical moment or composition.

Always a strong advocate for knowing the melody and musical structure of a composition, Elvin said, “The drummer should know as much about the composition to be performed as does the pianist, bassist, and the horn players.” He would also suggest that knowing the lyrics could be very helpful in shaping a musical composition. “After knowing this kind of musical information one can then begin to construct and orchestrate a musical drum part that has some substance along with a musical shape to it.”

With that in mind, we felt it was valuable to demonstrate the fascinating way that Elvin orchestrated his drum part to compliment a song’s melody. Elvin’s composition titled “Three Card Molly” really captured my imagination. I will never forget the time back in May of 1979 when Elvin stayed at my home. I asked if he could show me how he orchestrated that particular drum part, and he graciously sat down behind my drum set and began to demonstrate his rhythmic phrasing of the melody. Needless to say, I asked if he could please play it slowly so I could try to grasp the complexity and nuances of his drumming. With my tape recorder running, I stood there and watched in amazement the work of a true drum genius.

Concerning the following musical transcription, it’s very important to understand that the drumming of Elvin Jones is beyond any transcription. Musical notation has its limits, especially when it comes to jazz performance. One cannot notate such significant and personalized characteristics as pure emotion, human spirit, truth, and intensity, or that incredible loose and relaxed feel that was such an important part of that unmistakable Elvin Jones sound.

Performance Notes. “Three Card Molly” is made up of two different melodic phrases. The A phrases are eight measures in length, while the B phrase (or bridge) is four measures long. Compare the lead sheet melody with the drum transcription and notice how every note of the melody has been orchestrated with Elvin’s unique use of triplet phrasing. The accents notated on both the melody page and the drum part should help provide you with a basic reference point.

Elvin masterfully interprets the “contrast” phrase at letter B, creating almost primal patterns using toms and bass drum. This, along with his shifting accents, both complements and shapes the rising and falling tension of the melodic line. His rhythmic phrasing during the bridge is quite polyrhythmic and highly syncopated, yet he always makes it groove and swing so damn hard — it’s just phenomenal! As mentioned earlier, Elvin plays some things that are beyond notation, and his part during the bridge is one of those instances. The A and B phrases clearly demonstrate Elvin’s uncanny ability to come up with unique textural and rhythmic phrases that “play the music” as only he can.

Drum Notation Guide

First let’s take a look at the melody:


Now, here is Elvin’s drum part:


In Closing. This transcription provides a very small glimpse into the world of a musical genius, and the most unique and masterful jazz drum innovator who has ever lived. I hope you will study and enjoy it, and benefit from his ideas. Any drummer would do well to study Elvin’s sound and musical vocabulary through his recordings both prior to his years with John Coltrane and after.

As for me, I’m proud to say that Elvin Jones was my friend, colleague, and a very important mentor. I love you and will miss you always, Elvin! I won’t forget you or what you’ve shared with me. I am a better person for knowing you, and am indebted to you forever.

Dan Sabanovich has had an active career as both a jazz musician and educator at San Jose State University. He has played with Charlie Byrd, George Cables, Pete Escovedo, Clare Fisher, Tom Harrell, Joe Henderson, the Bobby Hutcherson/Woody Shaw Quintet, and the Steve Czarnecki Soul Jazz Quintet.